2015 was perhaps a crucial year for social media awareness of the broadness of the term ‘gender‘. In a report last year August, YouGov found that half of the young British people questioned said “they are not 100 per cent heterosexual”. When asked on a scale ranging from “exclusively heterosexual to exclusively gay, 72 per cent of adults and 49 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 chose a position other than completely straight”.
Much, though not all, of this is thanks to the series Orange Is The New Black, who featured the sensually androgynous Ruby Rose. Ruby herself is also largely responsible for the public interest in the term ‘gender fluid*’. This was a catalyst for introducing the idea that gender is a malleable concept into the mainstream media, where social media spread it to public awareness. ‘Gender fluid’ was now a concept that had entered the mainstream cisgender conscience. Gender constructs received more public focus.
Laverne Cox’s introduction to the series also spurred more interest in the transgender world, and transgender models made headlines. The fashion world pushed transgender models like Hari Nef and Andreja Pejić. Caitlin Jenner came out, shocking the world, with some reacting negatively, but mostly with support from her family and social media. It became cool to say ‘Ruby Rose makes me doubt my sexual orientation’ (even it is ignorant to imply that homosexuality is a choice). However, there is much more not known to the cisgender* public at large, about non-binary* people.
The basics: A transgender person is someone whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional ideas of the male or female gender. It is disrespectful to ignore the ‘gender’ they have identified with, by referring to them as their biological gender. Many people don’t know that as it is. When I met Rhain Jenkins, conversation quickly turned to the topic of the most annoying things she’d been asked. There were some things that she said that seemed like they should be common knowledge, but are not.
“I find that the biggest misconception cisgender people make is that there are only 2 genders, namely male and female.” Rhain explains, “As a non-binary trans person, it can be very tiring to explain that I’m not “a man or a woman”, so I tend to just say “I’m transgender” and let people make their own assumptions.”
The idea that gender is not as black and white as we once accepted is a fairly new one to the general public- but not a new idea to the LGBT community. Much of what we understand gender to be is a social construct- meaning it’s something we’re conditioned to accept as being defined by ranging things from (at the most basic level) colours (blue or pink), clothes, hair length, tone of voice, etc. You do not have to be a woman to straighten your hair, or a man to change a tyre. To some, gender fluidity may seem like an idea that they will choose to accept or not as valid, but in truth, these are things we validate already on a daily basis- they are validated when you agree that a man is allowed to cry, and that a woman is allowed to have children as well as work.
“Another common misconception that I’ve encountered is confusion between terms like transgender, transvestite, transsexual, and the assumption that drag queens are transgender – you can be trans and a drag queen, but there are just as many cis drag queens.”
Many people still associate transgenderism with being a transvestite or transexual. Incase you were wondering, the difference is that a transvestite is a person, usually a man, who derives pleasure from dressing in clothes deemed for the opposite sex. Transsexual people have had sexual reassignment surgery, “thus it doesn’t apply to all transgender people”.
I believe it is not always willful ignorance, but a lack of the opportunity to learn. I decided to burden Rhain with the chore of educating me. Rhain indulged me. “One of my biggest pet peeves is cis people telling me what to do with my appearance so that I look “more like a woman”. I have no interest in waxing or shaving all my body hair off, and constantly hearing how I supposedly need make up is degrading. Having to give a crash course to people on “the trans experience” is also very tiring, although I don’t fault people for questioning their own ignorance and trying to better understand trans people.”
There is not enough known about the average transgender person’s experience- and at the very root of what it means to identify with any other gender than one’s biological one. “It only really clicked for me the beginning of 2015, though in hindsight I probably would have realised much sooner if I had better understanding of what it meant to be transgender, and this is a common narrative amongst LGBT people in general, stressing the need for positive and respected role models in the media.”
And yes, transgender people are sick of hearing the same old questions (like the ones following) from morbidly curious or purposefully offensive people. So take note: “It’s common to get very invasive questions, especially from complete strangers. People don’t realise how inappropriate it is to ask someone you’ve just met about their genitals and how they have sex, which you’d think would be obvious but it happens quite regularly.”
“Another question trans people dislike is anything along the lines of “what is your birth name?” as it’s completely irrelevant to our current lives, and calling a trans person by their birth name is considered transphobic (the term for this is deadnaming). I’ve never been asked that, though I regularly get asked if I chose my name (I didn’t), which I just chalk up to benign curiosity.”
Ofcourse, how can I, a cisgender person, really understand what it’s like to be transgender in a world that, although slowly waking up, still has the leniency to purposefully misunderstand. Rhain herself acknowledges that her experience is completely different to that of say, a trans person living in a township, as a middle class white person. Every experience differs, but some issues are definitely widely relatable.
“Aside from the financial aspect of coming out (a new wardrobe requires money), having to explain to people you’ve known for years that you are somehow different from what they’ve always seen you as can be quite a challenge. It has taken time for people close to me to adjust to the new, old me…”
“Transphobia is alive and well in this country, our constitution and laws aside. I’ve experienced housing discrimination firsthand, and the constant harassment, slurs, laughter, whispers, stares, catcalling, and insulting comments is the daily experience of many feminine presenting trans people in South Africa. We’ve seen this escalate to violence and death, but I still feel like we’re making progress, however slowly.”
*The Gender Glossary:
Cisgender: a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.
Gender fluid(ity): a gender identity that may change or shift over time between or within the mix of the options available (eg, man and woman, bi and straight).
Non-binary: Genderqueer (GQ), also termed non-binary or gender-expansive, is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the genderbinary and cisnormativity.